In the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Miss Maudie looks down at Jem and says: “Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us … your father is one of them.” She was referring to Atticus Finch, but she could just as well be referring to Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”
Bingham is a hired gun. He comes to your company and fires your employees when you are downsizing. Ryan lives to fly from city to city. He is on a quest, but he will not tell you for what.
He has a set of gifts. Ryan can talk to people in the midst of a soul-killing time and lead them through the moment when everything in life changes. But with what he does, being the bearer of bad news and company change, he must also face change.
Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), Ryan’s boss, brings him and all the others in the company back to headquarters in Omaha. We see Ryan’s pitiful apartment and discover that he is better in the air than on the ground.
Craig introduces Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to the staff. Natalie has the bright idea of bringing in all the employees to the office and doing their work over the internet. This would save the company the money on travel and kill Ryan’s lifestyle.
Ryan convinces Craig that firing people over the internet is not as easy as it sounds. Craig agrees and sends Natalie out with Ryan to show her the ropes. Ryan is none too happy with this.
At the airport, Ryan begins the education of Natalie. Fresh out of college, Natalie does not know much about life, especially life in the air. When she shows up with an old piece of American Tourister luggage, Ryan informs her that it is called luggage for a reason. He makes her buy a new bag, a carry-on, and throws away some of what she packed.
As they travel, the two begin to see into each other’s lives. Ryan has a philosophy, one he teaches in motivational speaking, about all of life needing to fit in a backpack. That means he has no attachments. No desire to marry or have children. Natalie is looking for the guy who fits her ideal.
Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) who is like Ryan. She flies from city to city with no attachments. Ryan is attracted to her.
In an encounter on the road, Alex tells Natalie that time will change her ideals. That what will happen is that she will settle for something less than she wants.
A subplot of the story involves Ryan’s sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), who is getting married. Ryan has not been a part of her life for years but now comes back in. When Julie’s fiancé, Jim (Danny McBride), gets cold feet, it is Ryan who must go and talk Jim out of not marrying his sister. What Ryan must do is take all his personal philosophy and turn his back on it for the sake of his sister.
This is one of the finest movies of the year. George Clooney is perfectly unClooney-like as this man who feels better at the airport. Jason Reitman gives us both a solid screenplay and direction to this movie that asks us to think about our relationships. In Ryan’s philosophy, relationships are the heaviest thing in the backpack. But relationships do more to define us than anything, even our employment.
One of the most powerful parts of the movie is when we see Ryan at work, telling people that their job is done. We get to see the pain that this current economy created. People share their souls, for it is work that defines us as a people, but we learn something more.
It is the relationships that we have with our spouses, children and extended family that see us through. That is what it means to be human.
And all the while, Ryan flies from town to town, being the bearer of bad news. His is one of those unpleasant jobs that Miss Maudie speaks about and it is that unpleasantness that makes him who he is. That is a powerful lesson.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality and brief nudity.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kim
Cast: George Clooney: Ryan Bingham; Natalie Keener: Anna Kendrick; Alex Goran: Vera Farmiga; Craig Gregrory: Jason Bateman; Amy Morton: Kara Bingham; Melanie Lynskey: Julie Bingham; and Danny McBride: Jim Miller.
The movie’s Web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.